New Committee Brings Industry Viewpoint to NAC, Seeks Changes to Planetary Protection Guidelines

New Committee Brings Industry Viewpoint to NAC, Seeks Changes to Planetary Protection Guidelines

The new NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Regulatory and Policy Committee (RPC) met for the first time last Friday, adopting a number of  “observations, findings, and recommendations” (OFRs) that will be considered by the full NAC at its meeting in December.  The committee, composed primarily of industry representatives, approved OFRs spanning topics from export controls to advertising to planetary protection.  If approved by NAC, they will be forwarded to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who created RPC shortly after taking office.

NASA publicly announced the membership of the RPC committee only hours before it met on November 16. They had a private session in the morning where they held preliminary discussions and a three-hour public meeting in the afternoon. During the public session, there was little debate on the pre-drafted texts of OFRs on the following topics:

  • Export Controls
  • Intellectual Property
  • Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) regarding its planetary protection guidelines
  • Supporting Space-Based Commercial Development
  • Enhancing ISS and Private Sector Habitat/Stion Utilization in LEO and Beyond
  • Utilization of Logos
  • Leveraging Advertising
  • Astronaut Endorsements
NAC RPC Chair Mike Gold of Maxar Technologies. Photo Credit: NASA

Chaired by Maxar Technologies’ Mike Gold, the RPC is composed of representatives from 11 companies (Maxar, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Deep Space Industries, Nanoracks, Virgin Galactic), one policy expert (John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University), one scientist (Josepf Koller from Aerospace Corp), and one law professor (Mark Sundahl, Cleveland State University).

Gold also chairs the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and has extensive experience with commercial space issues. He spent a decade serving as the director of Bigelow Aerospace’s Washington office and now is Vice President Regulatory/Policy at Maxar, which includes Space Systems Loral and DigitalGlobe among its business units.

Bridenstine has a lot of familiarity with them, too, stemming from his years as a Congressman from Oklahoma.  He made commercial and national security space activities a focus of his legislative activity before his appointment as NASA Administrator. He stopped by the RPC meeting and participated in some of the discussions.

NAC and its committees are composed of outside experts chosen by and reporting to the NASA Administrator. Bridenstine added RPC and elevated a task group on education to a Committee on STEM Engagement.

He announced creation of RPC at the last NAC meeting and he and Gold outlined its portfolio. One topic that raised a few eyebrows then was their interest in selling naming rights and allowing astronauts to seek endorsements.

OFRs on both of those topics were adopted at the RPC meeting.  The advertising recommendation is for NASA to “examine the possible public benefits of space-based promotional activities on rockets, spacecraft, hardware, and/or modules, taking into account historical insights.”  As for astronaut endorsements, RPC observed that NASA astronauts are prohibited by law from receiving pay for official duties from non-government sources, but found they could participate in an “Agency endorsement activity.”

The committee spent a considerable amount of time discussing planetary protection guidelines developed by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council for Science. Planetary protection refers to protecting other solar system bodies from contamination by people and probes launched from Earth (forward contamination), and protecting Earth from contamination by materials brought back by people and probes (back contamination).

The RPC wants significant changes not only in the guidelines themselves and how they are developed, but for NASA to discontinue using the term planetary protection entirely.  This issue relates not only to how NASA implements the COSPAR guidelines, but what will be expected of commercial companies that want to send probes and people into deep space.

The RPC argues that the COSPAR guidelines are not legally binding, and what is legally binding, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, does not use the term planetary protection.  It wants NASA to use the Treaty phrases of avoiding “harmful contamination” of celestial bodies and “adverse changes in the environment of Earth.”  More broadly, it wants NASA to include industry in a multi-disciplinary team to develop U.S. policies that “properly balance the legitimate need to protect against the harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies with the scientific, social, and economic benefits of public and private space missions.”

Gold said in an interview after the meeting that what industry basically wants is a seat at the table when such guidelines are being developed.  He insists there is a “false dichotomy” between what scientists and industry want and is optimistic they can work together cooperatively rather than fighting each other.

Gabriel Swiney, State Department Legal Adviser. Credit: Swiney’s LinkedIn page.

State Department Legal Adviser Gabriel Swiney briefed the committee on the legal situation.  He conceded that in the past he has used the terms planetary protection and harmful contamination interchangeably, but recently became convinced planetary protection misses the nuance of “harmful.”  He posited that there is a “delta” between the legal obligations imposed by the Treaty and the COSPAR guidelines that NASA diligently follows. NASA’s detailed and expensive requirements may not be necessary for the United States to comply with its international obligations.

Bridenstine was present for the discussion and noted that this issue was brought to his attention long before he became Administrator.  Indeed, as a Congressman he co-sponsored the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which prohibits the COSPAR guidelines from being considered international obligations of the United States.  The bill passed the House in April, but has not been taken up in the Senate.

Even before that, NASA itself was asking about planetary protection in this evolving era when more countries and private companies are seeking to send probes to Mars, in particular.  NASA’s concern is scientific.  If extraterrestrial life is discovered, it wants to be certain it was not brought there from Earth.

In 2016, NASA asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review the process by which planetary protection policy is developed.  The report was published in July 2018.

Joseph Alexander chaired the study committee.  Via email this week, he said his committee concluded the only destination of concern right now is Mars because the planetary protection requirements for other destinations likely to be visited by private sector entities, like the Moon or asteroids, are “very straightforward and simple.”  He pointed out that his committee’s report urged NASA to “engage the full range of stakeholders, including industry and government project managers and designers, in the formulation of planetary protection requirements so that considerations of cost and flexibility would be folded into guidelines early in the process.”

That seems to align with what the RPC is seeking.

As for whether there is a substantive difference between “planetary protection” and “harmful contamination,” Alexander said his committee defined planetary protection as “avoiding harmful biological and organic contamination” with a focus on “effects that can interfere with searches for extraterrestrial life or the wellbeing of terrestrial life.”

Linda Billings, a consultant who advised NASA’s planetary protection office in the past, is not persuaded the two terms are substantively different.  Via email she called it sophistry and urged the use of international diplomacy to find consensus on planetary protection policy,  another recommendation from the National Academies’ report.  She noted that the COSPAR guidelines have never been legally binding and COSPAR has no enforcement authority, but its “‘honor system’ of compliance has worked well thus far.”

Bridenstine said he understands the complexity of balancing the needs of scientists and the commercial sector and thinks the RPC is the right place to solve it because it brings scientists, lawyers and industry together.

Whether the science community considers Koller and ULA’s Mark Mozena, a government relations representative for ULA who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, sufficiently representative of their viewpoint may become apparent at the NAC meeting.  Gold said it will take place from December 10-11, although the notice has not been published in the Federal Register yet.

NAC and its committees must comply with Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) which requires public notice of government advisory committee meetings 15 days in advance, so it should be posted soon.  NAC is chaired by Gen. Les Lyles (Ret.).  The interim chair of its Science Committee is Meenakshi Wadhwa, Director of the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University.

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